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Symphony takes on a jazz vibe for its Red Velvet Gala

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 17, 2012 - When Wynton Marsalis comes to town, music becomes more than a concert — it’s an event. Two, in fact.

For one, Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will perform this weekend for the St. Louis Symphony’s Red Velvet Ball, the orchestra’s annual fundraiser.

The trumpeter is also conducting a coaching session and side-by-side concert (1 p.m. Oct. 19) at the 560 Center in University City.

Jazz students from around the greater St. Louis area are invited to a session of listening and learning involving the musician-composer-band leader and three members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with students from East St. Louis High School.

The East St. Louis High School students are having a reunion of sorts, as they first met with orchestra members last year when the band competed with 14 other ensembles in New York City. Marsalis was a judge at the competition.

On Saturday, the fourth annual Red Velvet Ball and its concert (7 p.m.) provide an opportunity for the guests of Powell Hall to be decked out as elaborately as the symphony’s home. The event offers an elegant setting, fabulous food and glorious music.

The ball will pay homage to St. Louis and its musical roots as the concert showcases jazz. This is also an opportunity to see a composer performing his own work.

For 55 minutes, the audience will experience Marsalis’ Symphony No. 3, known as his “Swing Symphony.” This six-movement tour de force is at once a history lesson in jazz and a homage to the various styles and cities that added flavor to the music.

And everyone is along for the ride.

Dizzy Gillespie and “Guys and Dolls,” Miles Davis and Charles Mungis, Charlie Parker and Bennie Carter and, of course, John Coltrane are all involved in this tour.

“I want you to understand the concept of Swing,” Marsalis told the Los Angeles Times last year.

And that is what he has delivered. Often referred to as “ambitious,” Swing Symphony is, according to LA Times writer, Kevin Berger, “a musical manifesto, not only on the melding of jazz and classical but on the cultural crosscurrents that he feels are at the heart of America's greatness.”

The first movement offers a worldly and historic perspective and celebrates St. Louis’ illustrious history in jazz, making it a fitting choice for the gala. Beginning with drums echoing from Africa, it expands and blossoms into the fluid tones native to St. Louis and New Orleans that serve as swing's foundation.

The second movement pays tribute to early 20th century American pop music and the third movement offers a glorious combination of strings and foot-tapping that speaks to the romance of jazz.

In the lively fourth movement Marsalis brings in bebop and intertwines it with the sass and spirit of other influences.

The fifth movement adds in swing. And the final portion of the piece comes full circle hearkening back to Africa and then to New Orleans before bringing us home.

Marsalis composed this work during his Barbican Centre residency in the United Kingdom. Its world premiere in London was well received: “In all,” The Telegraph’s classical music critic Ivan Hewitt said at the time, “it was a fitting climax to the residency, which has given us food for thought as well as joy.”

“The energy and invention were amazing; at one point we had a swinging fugue,” Hewitt wrote. “One could hear the sounds of America itself, above all the hoot of trains.”

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